TEHERAN • More than two weeks of heavy pollution led Iranian officials yesterday to ban all outdoor sport and impose new traffic curbs as persistent cold weather exacerbated Teheran's air quality woes.
In the worst concerted period of pollution for three years, primary schools and nurseries have been closed and new car exclusion zones imposed in the Iranian capital.
Teheran's air quality index averaged 159, more than three times the World Health Organisation's advised maximum of between zero and 50. At such levels people are advised not to leave home unless absolutely necessary.
One area in north-eastern Teheran peaked at 238 on the pollution index and President Hassan Rouhani addressed the issue at a Cabinet meeting as concern rose about health risks. "The problem has been around for years and cannot be entirely tackled in a short time," he was quoted as saying by the official Irna news agency.
Irna reported that yesterday was the 18th straight day of dangerously bad air while newspapers quoted officials blaming each other for the problem.
"Our preference was to close all schools but the Education Ministry insisted on keeping high schools open because of final-term exams," said Mr Mohammad Heydarzadeh, secretary of Teheran's emergency air pollution committee.
The cold weather is causing climate inversion - where emissions from car exhausts hang in the air rather than rising into the atmosphere above.
A decade-long central restriction zone based on car number plates is in place across the city, traffic police announced.
Vehicles with plates ending in an odd number cannot be on the road on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday, while cars with even-numbered plates are banned on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.
Sand and cement factories around the capital have been banned from operating until tomorrow, the end of the Iranian week, and all outdoor sporting events including professional football league matches have been called off. Exhaust fumes from the five million cars and almost as many motorcycles on Teheran's roads account for 80 per cent of its pollution, officials say.
Weather forecasters predicted that air quality would improve after expected rainfall last night.
Last December, almost 400 people were hospitalised with heart and respiratory problems caused by heavy pollution in Teheran, with nearly 1,500 others requiring treatment.